Why you should care

Because the dark side of body-beautiful culture shines, sometimes, so brightly.

In Sam Fussell’s recently reprinted 1991 Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, the gangly, skinny (6-foot-4, 170 pounds) kid from Oxford, son of the storied literary historian Paul Fussell, tells a story that quickly separates the bodybuilding wheat from the chaff. Leaving his Manhattan office job one day, his mind on his Ph.D. dissertation, his heart in his newfound love of life under pumped iron, Fussell chatted with his boss. When they got to the door, there was that uncomfortable two-step when both reached for the handle at the same time.

Then the whole “after you; no, after you” bit. Finally, the boss graciously insisted that Fussell should go first. Fussell’s response? Only one that a bodybuilder could love or understand: He grabbed his boss and tossed him through the open door onto the waiting pavement. Right before heading back in, packing his desk and leaving behind the life of the mind for a much more somatic one.

So kicks off Fussell’s hidden gem, a rollicking ride through base-level urban fears and a certain amount of physical diffidence into a 3,000-mile journey to Venice Beach’s bugged-out bodybuilding underworld. And much further: competitions, steroids and pooping in diapers so as not to interrupt a workout.

Fussell told it all, clear-eyed and clearheaded, like an anthropologist.

“I think he went looking for the most out-there stories he could find,” says competitive bodybuilder Art Castro. “Like basing a Vietnam war story on what happened in My Lai.” Which has been done and doesn’t clear the way to spackling over Fussell’s reportage of steroid-addled lifters turning tricks, living in their cars, assaulting various and sundry in so-called ’roid rages and, yes, wearing adult diapers on those dreaded leg days when you could neither interrupt your workout to go to the toilet nor take a chance that lifting anything over 500 pounds wouldn’t make them necessary.

Fussell told it all, clear-eyed and clearheaded, like an anthropologist. Competing in a statewide bodybuilding competition, he scored second place and then walked away from the sport, never to touch another weight in a serious way or, presumably, another steroid again. “If I were to be honest, I wouldn’t be welcomed into any hard-core gym for decades,” said Fussell (now living like an anchorite — no website, no Facebook — in Montana, hunting and working on a dive rescue team) in a rare interview with Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician-researcher on human performance and exercise physiology at the Mayo Clinic. “Where I live now, bodybuilding does not exist on anyone’s radar, so for me to talk to anyone about bodybuilding in Montana would be as absurd as discussing just how I skin a bear to someone who lives in Los Angeles.”

But for one brief, bright bodybuilding moment, Fussell told an enduring truth about his place in space to counter all of that tanned perfection and marketing crap: “[I am] right where I want to be: drugged to the gills, exactly where I am through tens of thousands of previous lifts, glued to that spot, as happy as a man can be. Ecstatic, actually. Physically ecstatic because I know every inch of my body is under my command and will do anything I ask of it. And my body is, because of this, on fire.”

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